Saturday, January 13, 2007

"There is a growing concern about the wide authority that has been given TxDOT in recent years as well as the abuse of that authority."

Some lawmakers want to rein in TxDOT toll roads


Patrick Driscoll
San Antonio Express-News
Copyright 2007

The Texas Department of Transportation's full-tilt charge to build toll roads wherever possible and let private companies collect fees and profits for half a century or more could hit a wall this legislative session.

TxDOT officials are asking for more money, more power and more flexibility to carry out toll-road ambitions, but some lawmakers say the agency has gone too far already.

"There is a growing concern about the wide authority that has been given TxDOT in recent years as well as the abuse of that authority," said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Homeland Security Committee.

"I believe the Legislature will either significantly rein in TxDOT or at a minimum be very reluctant to pass any of the initiatives that TxDOT brings forward," he said.

Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, who as chairman of the House Transportation Committee authored two bills since 2003 that greatly expanded TxDOT's tolling powers, foresees a milder reaction but a debate and potential changes nonetheless.

"I don't know if it'll be a battleground," he said. "I think there'll be a healthy debate and a healthy discussion."

But as Carona and Krusee each push wildly differing bills to tie the gas tax to an inflation index — Carona wants to raise it twice as fast as Krusee — and thus reduce the need to build so many toll roads, they're not even sure what Gov. Rick Perry is willing to sign into law.

Perry, who likes how toll plans have gone so far, intends to stand back from the fray and see what legislators come up with.

"He supports letting lawmakers hash it out," said his spokesman, Ted Royer. "If they can send him a bill, he will take a look at it."

TxDOT officials, who say Texas toll strategies will soon be a template for the rest of the nation, will be on hand to point out costs and benefits of changes legislators propose.

"Those boys and girls pass the laws and we live with them and smile," said Ric Williamson, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

TxDOT's road to tolls got bumpier last year as more people began to realize what could be in store — the agency wants to toll every new highway lane feasible and is willing to limit improvements to free roads to guarantee use of tollways.

Then complaints rolled in that TxDOT was using its financial might to coerce local officials from El Paso to Houston to play along, which the agency denies, and was pushing for 50-year concession deals with companies offering cash up front in exchange for profits that motorists would have to pay in higher toll fees.

"It's our own fault," said Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso, who as a member of the House Appropriations Committee helped write TxDOT budgets. "We gave them too much authority and trusted them too much."

Now TxDOT is recommending lawmakers lift the lid on concession agreements to give the state more bargaining room.

Officials want to remove several restrictions — a 2011 deadline to enter into such contracts, a 50- to 70-year limit on how long the agreements can last and a cap on public money that can be spent on concession projects, which is set at 40 percent of federal funds it gets.

The agency also wants to be able to suspend drivers' licenses and deny vehicle registrations when people fail to pay tolls and related fines, and give the same power to companies operating tollways for the state.

Carona has other ideas, especially when it comes to eliminating caps on how long concession contracts can last.

"They're dreaming," the senator said. "Under no circumstances will that be allowed to happen. We should be doing, in fact, the reverse."

With concern brewing across the state, Carona scheduled a March 1 hearing to air out how tolls are being implemented.

He also filed SB 149 to stop TxDOT from including non-compete agreements in toll contracts, which restrict improvements to free roads, and another bill to index the gas tax to rising construction costs.

SB 165 covers the combined 38.4-cent a gallon state and federal taxes, but the increases for both would be added to the state portion. Borrowing on the proceeds would cover state transportation needs through 2030, a recent Governor's Business Council study says.

"Of all the options out there, this is the least painful," Carona said. "Most painful is the proliferation of toll roads."

Krusee said he'll bring back a bill he filed in the last regular session to index the state's 20-cent tax to consumer inflation, something people will more readily trust and understand.

That would raise less than half of what Carona's proposing but would still relieve pressure for toll roads.

"That's going to be a really interesting debate," Krusee said.

Krusee also expects tweaks to tolling laws, but he won't get on board with major changes such as blocking non-compete agreements. There's a tradeoff for everything, he said, and allowing more competition for toll roads means less private investments and more strain on tax funds.

"It's going to cost you money either way," he said. "There's just no free lunch in this."

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